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Does the arrival of AFLW pose a new threat to the future of W-League?

Stephanie Catley & Jessica Fishlock
Melbourne City's Jess Fishlock (right) inspiring them to victory.

As Melbourne City lifted a second consecutive W-League title on Sunday, Football Federation Australia chiefs may have had good reason to feel a mixture of trepidation and excitement.

Almost 4,600 fans made their way to nib Stadium to watch City defeat Perth Glory 2-0 in the grand final, with player-coach Jess Fishlock inspiring them to victory.

But about 20 kilometres away, some 10,000 fans packed out Fremantle Oval for the Dockers' first home clash of the inaugural AFLW competition -- a crowd that W-League bosses may well have looked at with some envy.

A week earlier, the opening AFLW game between traditional rivals Carlton and Collingwood attracted almost 25,000 people -- reportedly the biggest-ever crowd for a women's sporting event in Australia outside the Olympic or Commonwealth Games.

With the W-League averaging a little over 1,500 fans per game this season compared to more than 10,000 for the AFLW over the first two rounds, some have suggested the round ball code should be worried about the future of its premier women's competition.

But Football Federation Australia head of football development, community and women's football Emma Highwood said she believed the arrival of the AFLW could benefit women's sport across the board.

"There's obviously been an explosion [of interest] around women's sport, and the AFL has come into the market more recently, but also cricket and the Pearls [rugby sevens] at international level," Highwood told ESPN FC.

"From a general perspective, the FFA welcomes that -- any kind of women's sport is good for everyone, and we certainly see that as a benefit.

"I actually think it [the introduction of AFLW] raises the bar for everyone, it makes women's sport be seen as a more commercial property and that means it's valued more broadly.

"We welcome the competition in the market and we think it will be good, long term, for all women's sport."

AFL boss Gillon McLachlan said he was confident the league would continue to blossom and that officials "were obviously incredibly pleased" with the early crowd numbers.

"[There has been] a lot of work by a lot of people to get there, including a number of women over decades," he added.

"It wasn't just the numbers, but it was just the energy and enthusiasm and the joy of those games.

"The standard will grow every time, and in two years it will be unbelievable. I reckon there's something very exciting about it."

As well as AFL fans enjoying the chance to return to suburban venues such as Footscray's Whitten Oval and Carlton's Ikon Park, Dr Alan Pomering -- an expert in sports marketing from the University of Wollongong's Faculty of Business -- said curiosity, timing, access and a hunger for football had led to the early success of the league.

"There are many reasons for the initial success of AFLW," Pomering told The New Daily.

"There's an appetite for AFL, there's a novelty value in seeing something new, there's a curiosity factor.

"Free-to-air television is important for making it easier to access the sport and to build awareness of the leagues and teams.

"And a lot of people are just ready to see football again."

Television viewership is another key battleground for all sports, with the AFLW racing out of the blocks following its launch.

While Highwood pointed to a television audience of some 440,000 for Sunday's W-League grand final, that figure fell well short of the AFLW contest between Collingwood and Melbourne -- a combined peak audience of 677,000 viewers across the five capital cities in which it was broadcast live.

However, the sample size is extremely small in trying to judge the impact of AFLW.

Factor in the free entry for AFLW games -- entry to W-League matches cost about $5 to $10, according to Highwood -- and it soon becomes apparent that comparing the two leagues is not a case of comparing apples and apples.

However, there is no doubt that AFLW has resonated both with fans at the grounds and those watching at home, as well as gaining healthy coverage across all media.

But Highwood said there were several reasons why the FFA did not feel threatened by its new challenger, pointing out that soccer players can earn healthy salaries, play overseas and represent their country.

"We have to stay focused on developing our own game -- we're going into the ninth season of the W-League, it's a 14-week league, we attract international players, we have a pathway through to the national teams," she said.

"Some of our top Matildas are earning around $100,000 as salary when you combine their Matildas payments and what they can earn overseas.

"Each sport is different. We're obviously aware of the increased attention for other sports, but we're continuing to stick to our plans which are continuing to grow awareness of W-League, connecting in with the A-League -- double-headers are a key strategy for that and broadcast is really important to us."

The leagues are also fighting for athletes themselves, with AFLW teams having lured several high-profile athletes from rival codes including soccer, basketball, athletics and cricket.

But Highwood said she did not think the FFA should be concerned about its best juniors swapping the round ball for the oval ball.

"As well as concentrating on our league, we also focus on promoting the Matildas, the pathway through to the Olympics and the World Cup," she added.

"More and more W-League players are heading overseas -- to the US, parts of Asia, Europe... those opportunities to travel are a key focus.

"Last year, Roy Morgan research showed soccer had overtaken netball for girls between the ages of four and 11, which is a healthy sign that football is growing."


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